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Tests Coming For Army Spin Outs

Regular readers well know we’ve cast a skeptical eye on the Army’s premier modernization effort, called Brigade Combat Team Modernization, a collection of technology “enhancements” intended to equip all brigades. These capability packages used to be known as FCS “spin outs,” a term we sometimes employ as none of these technologies are new starts, in fact they’ve been under development for years; changing the name doesn’t fix underlying problems.

The Army has moved the technologies, a collection of sensors, aerial drones, small robots and precision missiles, into the final test and evaluation phase and plans to equip the first brigade with the new gear beginning late 2011.

By its own admission, the Army acknowledges performance “shortfalls” and “reliability issues” that surfaced in field tests last year with prototype gear. But Army leaders believe they can make the needed fixes and get the “Increment 1” production models ready for the field. We spoke to Paul Mehney, from the Army’s modernization office, on the status of the fixes and upcoming field tests.

During last year’s tests, the small robot, or Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) and the Class I drone both functioned as designed, providing “actionable intelligence” to soldiers, he said, and are now moving from prototype into production models. The hovering aerial drone has been criticized as too noisy, alerting the neighborhood to its presence. Mehney said the Army is looking at ways to muffle the engine as well as to make refueling easier.

The urban unattended ground sensors were able to detect movement and take images, but were unable to transport those images to soldiers, because they lacked the required display device. Since those tests, the Army now has the right display device and will be tested in this year’s tests.

The tactical unattended ground sensors met the “detection threshold,” but the image quality wasn’t very good and the sensors were unable to transport the image because testing soldiers lacked the needed “waveform,” the specially shaped signal that transmits data that is part of the Joint Tactical Radio System. Since, the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) 1.0, which will provide much greater radio control ranges, is now available and will be used in upcoming tests, Mehney said.

As for the serious reliability issues that arose in the 2009 tests, Mehney said fixes have been made, but the gear still must be tested in operational scenarios to see if the issues have been resolved. Technical tests on each of the systems are underway.

The 2010 operational tests will be more realistic than those of 2009, Mehney said. They will take place over a much larger area (30-35 kilometers), with more soldiers, with higher echelons of command involved (battalion level) and with the new radio waveforms that will allow transmitting voice, data, video and remote control of robots over much greater distances.

Those waveforms, SRW 1.0 along with JTRS Wideband Network Waveform (WNW) 4.0, will also provide much greater bandwidth and ranges. The Army’s Shadow and Raven drones will be used in the September 2010 tests. MRAP vehicles outfitted with the Network Integration Kits, a communications architecture, will also be involved. Counter-IED radio frequency jammers will also be involved in the tests to see if the various test frequencies are degraded, Mehney said.

The Army is building new simulated villages in the mountains of White Sands, representative of Afghanistan, to host the upcoming tests.

Final tests will take place in 2011 with a full brigade set of equipment, using the fist iteration of production equipment, to determine whether Increment 1 moves into full rate production.

A big question mark still surrounds the Non-Line of Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS) precision guided missiles, which failed to hit even half its intended targets in recent test firings. It doesn’t sound like the missiles will be included in the September operational tests. From what we’ve been hearing from other sources, the Army is seriously considering a less costly and more reliable alternative for precision indirect fires and may drop NLOS-LS altogether. As we’ve noted, this could also have implications for the Navy.

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